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The Two Words That Keep Me Going After Illness Stole My Life as a Triathlete

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It was the most difficult email I have ever had to send — forfeiting my starting allocation for the NCAA women’s triathlon championship. I had just submitted for medical leave from Georgetown University, and I could not move my left leg without experiencing blinding pain. Only a week prior I had set a personal best in the Olympic distance triathlon at my collegiate conference triathlon championships, finishing fifth, concluding a season ranked third in the conference, and securing my All-American status. When I stepped out of the car that night, returning to campus with an armful of trophies, my leg gave out. I tried to crawl onto the sidewalk, but I couldn’t even manage that.

My leg, my heart, my world felt shattered. Mere days separated me from having achieved a life so perfect that it felt surreal, to having all of it evaporate into air. I distinctly remember ugly crying on the phone with my mother, bent over on a Georgetown sidewalk, “But I was so happy.”

Such happiness had not been lost on me during its presence. I had spent about a decade racking up annual femur stress fractures, three hip surgeries, and various breaks from bike crashes. The feeling of asking my legs to do something, and having them respond accordingly was an unfamiliar one. Every step of each 13 mile run on the National Mall I was acutely aware of how lucky I was. I spent every second bursting with such a sheer thankfulness and joy that I would grin from ear to ear and occasionally shed tears of joy that mixed with streams of sweat and a layer of gnats that stuck to my skin.

That high was in sharp contrast to the new, lonely low that had so suddenly fallen upon me. That low lingered, with no salvation in sight, because for a year, no one could figure out why such happiness was stolen from me. It wasn’t until I packed up and took a train home to the Midwest, withdrawing from Georgetown until further notice, that my childhood doctor diagnosed me with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) in my lower back and left leg.

And after a year, my body has turned into a shell of its former self. The external does not reflect who I was, or what I had done. And there is nothing I can do about it. As someone who has constantly struggled with body image issues and an eating disorder that never actually went away, the loss of my body feels magnified. My reflection in the mirror mocks me, a visual reminder that my body is no longer capable of what it used to.

And this external manifestation, unlike the internal symptom of unrelenting pain, is on display for all to see. I am no longer asked if I’m a varsity track runner; no one oodles over my defined muscles anymore. I am no longer the All-American triathlete; everyone who knows me can tell, and everyone who doesn’t know me can’t even tell that I ever was.

As I slowly jog a few steps around the indoor track at the gym, I feel embarrassed. I want to scream out about my disorder at everyone who is staring at me struggle. I want them to know what CRPS has done to my body. But mostly, I want back my 13-mile runs, spent in solitude of the darkness of nights on the National Mall a year ago. I miss their steadiness, their calmness, their pureness and test of endurance.

The swim is always my least favorite part of a triathlon, because it feels like the exact opposite of my long runs. They are chaotic sprints, with hitting and grabbing and panic. Most races, I get so disoriented that I hyperventilate and end up back stroking for a bit. Yet progress feels immeasurably slow and slogging, as the shoreline seems to never get any closer. CRPS makes me feel like I am swimming, grasping for something solid and having it slip through my fingers, aiming for a shoreline that seems further away each day. The water weighs me down, a rip tide must be dragging me further from the beach, and the goal of forward propulsion melts into a goal of not drowning, of survival alone. There is a growing fear of never reaching land, of never making it to my bike or to the run ever again.

The 365 days of a year usually seem to take a long time, but they sprint by with an unforgiving and brutal rapidity when they are spent losing everything one has worked for.

The best advice I have gotten since my diagnosis was from my uncle, also an avid cyclist. “Be steady,” he said. In a triathlon, you will never reach the finish line without a level-headed steadiness. I spend the bike and the run of triathlons passing people who burned themselves out early; my strength lies in my patience, my ability to not be discouraged when I come out of the water, seemingly insurmountably behind. It is the ability to keep going.

You usually can’t see the finish line of a triathlon until the last few dozen meters or so. There is just faith that you will reach it, if you just keep going a little further, meter by meter. Most of the time, you don’t know how far out it is. Sometimes, you’re not even sure if you’re on the right path. Any ground you have lost to your competitors cannot be made up in a single sprint — you must slowly chip away to make up the distance you have lost. When that distance feels infinite, the only hope is to continue on, believing each moment will bring you closer to the race leader and to the finish line. You must be relentlessly steady.

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Thinkstock photo by lzf

Originally published: September 17, 2017
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